UltraRob

About UltraRob

Rob is a teacher, writer and entertainer based in London, Ontario, Canada. He is a teacher at Fanshawe College, Head of Wiseman Educational Services, Organizer of the Forest City Go Club and the founder/producer of the Kung Fu Action Theatre audio drama production group. He is married to his beautiful wife Connie, and owned by his dog Winston.

NaNoWriMo Quickstart Guide – Part One: Pick A Genre

The following multi-part series will offer a step-by-step quick-start guide to putting together a story. Even if you have little to no experience with writing, this guide will give you the basic structure and core ideas you need to tell the story you want. Of course, you will still need to be able to write proper sentences and use grammar on your own to make this work, but if you can, then you can tell a story. It will only take practice, time, and not giving up.

In the words of Robert Heinlein- “You must write, and you must finish what you write.”

If you do these two things, you will be a writer.

So let’s get you ready to write!


Once upon a time, there were no genres. There were just stories and ideas, but over time storytellers figured out worked and what didn’t work. Audiences too, decided what they liked and didn’t like in their stories. When these two things met, the concept of “genres” was born.

Genres are basically pre-set collections of ideas about a story with a particular goal- make the audience feel something. In a comedy, the audience wants to laugh, in a horror movie they want to be scared, in an adventure movie they want to feel a sense of wonder. Of course, they are more than that too, because over time standard ways of telling these stories that the audiences liked appeared. These ways of telling stories became so specific they became sub-genres (under genres) which not only follow the rules of the main genre, but also have another set of rules that go with them.

You might unhappily think, “Great! So I’ve got to go learn all these rules now?” But actually, it’s not a bad thing at all! This is really is great for you as a writer because it means once you pick your genre and sub-genre, a lot of your work is already done for you! You know what emotion you want the audience to feel, and you know what the audience is going to expect from you in the story. Your job is really only customizing this story so it’s your original take on what’s already laid out. It’s a little bit like buying a car from the lot, and then customizing it to make it your own. It saves you building the whole car, and you can just focus on the bits that you feel like changing.

In any case, Step 1 of putting together your story is to pick your genre and (if you choose) subgenre. You can find a list of all the different genres and subgenres here and here. There are quite a few of them, so here are a few rules to help you decide which one to pick for your story:

  • Always pick from the ones you are most familiar with, especially if you’re a beginning writer. It saves you a lot of time doing research (ie reading and watching) because you already know most of the main ideas and even the genres and sub-genres. Trying new genres is a sure way to get yourself into trouble, because you won’t know what cliches to stick with and which ones to avoid. There is an old writer’s saying: “Write what you know.” And that applies double here!
  • Pick from the ones that excite you the most. If you’re passionate about your topic, it will show, and it will get you thinking of new ideas faster than anything.
  • Make sure you understand what your audience wants from that genre and sub-genre.Pick a genre where you understand what your audience enjoys about that genre, and what they want to get from it. If you give them strawberry flavor when they ordered chocolate, they won’t be happy customers.
  • Don’t mix genres unless you know both of them well. It can be tempting to try to create new genre mashups, but unless you know the “rules” of both genres well, it can also turn into a mess.
  • Sub-genres are your friend. The main genres are pretty broad, so narrowing things down to a particular sub-genre and using the rules of that sub-genre can make your life a lot easier. If you want to explore a sub-genre, it also narrows your research materials down to just those particular stories.

When you’ve picked your genre and sub-genre, add them to your worksheet and move on to the next step: Brainstorming Ideas!

Detective Conan Mystery Formula

Image result for detective conan

The following formula, found on Reddit and submitted by user TeraVonen, is a near perfect summary of the typical 2-part story pattern you find in the mystery anime and manga Detective Conan. Conan is the 4th best selling manga series of all time, and the anime has been on the air for over 20 years, and in that time a definitely formula to how the stories play out has developed. There is still a lot of variety within this formula, but it’s the basis of the majority of Conan episodes which aren’t directly linked to the overarching plot.


The typical murder case Detective Conan episode

Part 1 :

  • Conan goes with some of his usual companions somewhere for leisure.
  • Optional: Conan thinks about some plot progression elements he recently discovered. *
  • Conan’s group run into a group of people. One of them is being a douche to everyone else and then goes somewhere away from the others. Conan will listen a bit to the argument then move on with his day.
  • A scream. Conan and any detective he was with (Heiji, Sera, etc) will go running to the scene. It’s a murder. The person being a douche earlier got killed.
  • The police come to the scene.
  • Optional: The scene might appear as an accident/suicide initially, before the detective confirm it’s actually a murder.
  • Conan starts citing strange things to the police. [Things that Conan notes as being strange about the case or situation- Rob]
  • There are three suspects: The ones who argued with the victim earlier.
  • End of the episode.

Part 2 :

  • The suspects are searched and interrogated. At least one of them has a good motive for the crime.
  • The police discovers new elements related to the crime, but still not enough to determine the identity of the murderer.
  • Conan and the other detectives (if present) are close to the truth, then someone in Conan’s group will bring up a subject or say something unrelated that will make Conan or the other detectives realize how the crime was committed.
  • At this moment, the three suspects want to go home and urge the police to let them go, they will explain again their own versions of the events to show how the murderer wasn’t one of them.
  • This is when the case is resolved, either by one of the adult detectives, Sleeping Kogoro, or Conan himself. The method of murder is explained and the culprit identified. They will deny it, claiming no proof, this is when the detectives will use the “We will find your blood/fingerprints/DNA” card.
  • The culprit admits his crime. His motive is either to punish an unpunished crime, getting blackmailed, or to avenge someone else. [Also hatred and jealousy are common ones- Rob]
  • End of the case, Ending starts.
  • Conan and his group move on from the case usually going home after having their leisure time disrupted.
  • Optional: If there is any plot progression deductions from Conan, they will be shown here. *

[ *  = These refer to the overarching story of the manga, not the individual mystery which this is a summary of. -Rob]


The above formula is best understood by watching a few episodes of Detective Conan (aka Case Closed in English) which can be found on Netflix or (better, because they have more episodes) Crunchyroll. Or, of course, you can also read the manga at various places online. It’s a nifty little mystery story structure for short stories that has been proven to work time and again.

If you wanted to use it for another type of detective story that wasn’t broken into two parts, however, you would need to make a few modifications. The audience knows who Conan is, whereas another detective would have to be quickly introduced. Also, in a short story you probably don’t need to have the suspects explain themselves twice, because that’s just for people who missed/forgot the first half to catch up before the reveal.

Anyhow, this was a great summary of the Conan story formula, so I thought it was worth archiving for future writers. Enjoy

Rob

Plastic Love and City Pop

Apparently an early 80’s Japanese music genre called City Pop is exploding on the internet right now. As a watcher of 80’s anime, I’m used to it, but it is nice to see this music getting it’s due. Everything old is new again!

Plastic Love (the song taking YouTube by storm)

What is Plastic Love (about a City Pop single which has recently shot up in popularity on YouTube)

A Brief History of City Pop

20 Tips for Writing Successful Webnovels

There are a number of survival strategies that Webnovel authors use to try to keep on top of their relentless workload while keeping their audience happy. These are strategies that any serial writer can learn from, although some of them are fairly specific to this meat grinder approach to writing.

Keep the story simple – Webnovels have extremely simple long term goal-driven plots. That goal might be “become a god” or “win the love of a good man,” but they’re always built around simple and direct Spines of Action which naturally give the author a lot of room to expand and play with.

Keep it primal – The motivations of Webnovel characters (like any good fictional characters) are primal ones that any audience member will understand because they’re things that all humans feel. A desire for revenge, to protect their family, to uphold a personal reputation, to save someone, to gain love, to regain something which was lost, to make money, to build something greater- these are all primal motivations which let the reader and lead character connect.

Be your lead – wYour lead character is a power fantasy alternate world version of yourself- own it. They’re you, simplified, slightly generic, and given a few positive traits for the audience to connect with. Don’t spend time agonizing over the perfect lead, just get in there and write your fantasy- because others have the same fantasies and will relate to you. Not only that, it’s what will make your character feel unique and different from the other leads- you are the secret sauce!

Make sure your lead is active – Your lead character is the driving engine of your story- they need to want something, and want it bad. They can’t be passive or unsure- they WANT it, and everything they do is in service to achieving that goal. Your story is about how the lead character achieves their goal- everything else is secondary.

Hit the ground running – You never get a second chance to make a first impression, so the saying goes. Good advice for writers too, as audiences have little patience for a story to warm up, especially in Webfiction. The central plot, motivation, character, goal and other essentials must be delivered in the first few chapters or the audience is going to be looking to get their entertainment fix somewhere else.

Stay audience focussed – The goal of a Webnovel writer, first and foremost, is to entertain their audience, and give them that hit of dopamine they crave. Plot, character, fine prose and witty dialog are all secondary and just there to keep the audience happy, and no trick, no matter how cliche or crude is off the table if it keeps the audience coming back for more. Chapters must always end on dramatic questions, and no plot twist is too wild if the audience enjoys it. This isn’t writing War and Peace, this is producing fast junk food entertainment.

Power fantasies sell – The audience is there to have their emotions stroked, and the simplest way to do this is to have the main characters act out the fantasies of the audience. (See Power Fantasies)

Keep it PG – The sad truth is that general audience stories make more money exactly because they’re targeted at the widest possible audience. The more people you turn-off/offend, the less people are going to be reading your story. Swearing, sex, torture, graphic violence and other dark content are just going to turn people away, especially teens who are the target audience of most of these stories. A little dash of these can add spice to a story, but too much will have readers heading for the doors.

Revenge plots sell – The strong bully the weak, the hero steps in and gets revenge on the bully, the audience eats it up and cheers. Rinse and repeat. (See the Righteous Avenger Plot for a more detailed version of this.)

Sexual fantasies sell – Cater to the sexual and emotional desires of your audience if you want to keep them coming back. The love interests must always have some sexualized selling points (large breasts, gorgeous eyes, beautiful shape, etc) and other traits which stimulate the audience on a personal level. Don’t be afraid to dip into sexual fetishes, but not too deeply. The temptation of sex sells much better than the act itself. (Unless you’re specifically writing for an audience that expects sex.)

Harems work – A main character who finds their love and commits is boring, but one who must choose between many different wonderful options keeps the reader interested in who they’ll end up with. Not only that, it lets the writer crowd the story with a whole array of walking sexual fantasies for the character and audience to lust after. (See Harems for more detail.) Everywhere the main character goes, they should be encountering beautiful potential love interests.

Everybody loves a winner – The man character is a power fantasy stand-in for the reader, and the reader hates to lose. If your main character starts to lose, the audience won’t be into it and will wander off to read about some other winner. Characters can suffer setbacks in their goals and shouldn’t always get what they want, but in the long run their path should only go in one direction- up!

Luck over effort – In many Webfiction genres, the main character is on a long and hard road, one which is normally overcome by blood, sweat, and determination. The problem is that involves a lot of boring time doing actual work, which is not really a lot of fun for the audience or that dramatic. So instead, while the main character should look like they’re working hard, they should actually be getting a non-stop stream of lucky breaks that let them skip ahead to the good stuff. Audiences love this, because it makes them feel like they’re one lucky break away from success in their own lives, and that hard work is overrated. But, you still need to pay lip service to doing work, so the main character should still do something to earn each of their lucky breaks, just things which are dramatic and interesting. (Like rescuing people, exploring ruins, winning duels, and other things which allow them to seem to earn their next power-up.)

There’s always someone bigger – The writer should establish right from the start that there’s a hierarchy, and the main characters place in it. (Usually near the bottom.) This gives the character a distant goal to work towards, and helps the audience understand the challenge that the main character is facing, making it seem more difficult. (Which in turn makes the audience more interested in seeing how the main character manages to overcome that massive disadvantage.)

Start the main character with a handicap – The main character should never start average- they should start below average. Whether it’s because of a curse, poor health, being orphaned, born to the lowest caste, or whatever- they should always start in the worst possible place. This creates instant audience sympathy because we love underdogs and feel connected to them. It also makes the thrill of their success all the more sweet.

Style is overrated – The point is to keep cranking out interesting stories as fast as you can, not tell them in some great and flashy style. Find a tight, concise storytelling style that lets you write fast and use that for writing your Webnovel, don’t worry about wowing the audience with your prose. Just tell the damn story, and if that means telling and not showing, then so be it. As long as it’s interesting, the audience doesn’t care about your style. (But they do care about grammar and spelling, so make sure those are still solid.)

Know your genre tropes – Genre tropes are tropes because people love them, and they work. No matter how many lists of cliches are made, or TV Tropes debates happen, the truth is that those tropes are there for a reason, so don’t avoid them- embrace them. Know what they are, and be ready to use them to keep your audience happy, no matter how much the critics may moan.

Write ahead – You will always get sick, or have writers block, or a family issue, or whatever else life decides to throw at you. This isn’t a possibility- this is factual reality like death, taxes, and people bothering you when you’re trying to write the best parts of your story. There is only one solution for this- write several chapters ahead of what you release, with a minimum of three chapters in the bank. For serials, where you’re responding to reader feedback, too many chapters ahead can cause trouble in case something doesn’t work the way you planned, but not writing ahead at all is asking for skipped release dates. And, as any serial content producer can tell you, the road to hell is paved in missed deadlines.

Listen to your audience – For most fiction writing, the best advice is to mostly ignore your audience and just write what you want. For Webnovels, the point is to write what the audience wants to read, and the only way to do that is to pay attention to whatever feedback you’re getting from them. Learn what your audience likes and doesn’t like, and then give them more of the good stuff. However, do remember that sometimes not giving them what they want until the last possible second produces better results than just giving it to them right away. (Also, don’t lose sight of your central story goal.)

Do some loose planning – While you need to be nimble and ready to change the story to suit your audience tastes, it’s not a bad idea to plan the story out very loosely from start to rough finish. A two or three page synopsis is fine, and it can make the world of difference when writer’s block comes down the line. Also remember that long stories are like eating elephants- they’re done in stages, one bite at a time. Plan a series of steps, not a whole big block. That lets you slip in other steps or re-arrange things as you go.

The S.P.I.N.E. of Good Comics

Previously, I’ve written about the characteristics that make up a good story, at least from the point of view of the audience, and how the writer has five key things they offer their audience in a story, which can be summed up by the acronym S.P.I.N.E..

  • Skills – the audience learns how to do something.
  • Perspective – the audience gains a new view of the world or has their current one confirmed.
  • Information – the audience gains information.
  • Novelty – the audience is presented with something they haven’t seen/known before.
  • Emotion – the audience is made to feel some emotion.

Today, I want to look at a more specific application- how these characteristics are what helps to make comic books interesting to read, and can make your comics or manga even better.

First, it’s important to understand that those five things apply on both the macro and micro level, so for example, a book might be a historical adventure set in Medieval England, and thus taken as a whole story (the macro level) it gives the reader Information (about the culture and history of England). However, even on the level of individual sentences (the micro level) each sentence in the book might be providing Information about people, dates, food, customs, events, clothing, or any other number of historical details. Taken as a whole, they inform the reader about the greater history and culture, but as usual, that information is actually presented in a bunch of tiny pieces that make up the whole.

So then, understanding that the S.P.I.N.E. covers everything big and small in a story, it should come as no surprise that they also cover the pages of a comic book- which is where I want to focus today.

In short, through the writing and art every single page of a comic book should offer at least one of those five key things to the reader. Preferably, it should offer more than one, but the minimum should be one thing if the writer/artist wants to keep the audience interested. In fact, the really skilled comic creators make almost every panel contain one of those elements.

Let’s look at some pages from the hit manga Dr. Stone by Inagaki Riichiro and BOICHI. (Remember that manga is read right to left, the opposite of American comics.)

(You can keep reading the story here to find out what happens next.)

As you can see, each of these pages (and panels) is packed full of the key five elements, as the writer and artist team make use of them to keep the reader interested and push the entertainment quality of the comic to new heights.

If you want to learn a lot about comic creation and writing, do what I did with the sample pages and analyze your favorite comics panel by panel and page by page. You’ll be surprised just how much information the best creators are packing in there in even the simplest looking of pages that take you seconds to read. (But filled with elements which your brain catches almost all of.)

Also, as you’re planning your next comic, or revising your current one, always be looking for the S.P.I.N.E. elements and chances to add them to your comic- in dialog, captions, panels, and pages.  It’s this focus on the reader, and these elements that have made manga a worldwide success, and which comic creators around the world (knowingly and unknowingly) have been using to produce works of comic art.

Rob

The Importance of the Spine of Action- Game of Thrones and Legend of the Galactic Heroes

The importance of a story’s central activity, or Spine of Action should never be underestimated when writing, especially when you’re writing longer works. Two beautiful examples of this are George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Yoshiki Tanaka’s Legend of the Galactic Heroes. Two very different epic stories which mirror each other in one central way- both authors ignored the spines of action of their works and paid the price for it.

<Significant spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire and Legend of the Galactic Heroes incoming! Take evasive action and retreat if you want to remain unspoiled about both of these amazing works!>

If you don’t know what a Spine of Action is, or can’t recall, here’s a short video about the subject.

In case you’re not familiar with them. A Song of Ice and Fire (aka ASOIAF, or A Game of Thrones) and Legend of the Galactic Heroes (LOGH) are both epic stories of conquest, politics, romance, and friendship. A Song of Ice and Fire is a fantasy story about a civil war that breaks out on the subcontinent of Westeros between the ruling families, and Legend of the Galactic Heroes is a science fiction story about a war between two galactic powers in the far future.

Now, with that in mind, what did each of these stories do wrong?

Both were written as novel series and cover many books, and both start out right from the beginning as war stories. In ASOIAF’s case it starts as a mystery of sorts, and then by the end of the first book turns into full-on civil war as the Lannister family stages a coup and takes over the imperial throne and the other noble families rise up in resistance. In LOGH’s case, the focus of the story is on Reinhard von Lohengramm and his ambitious rise to power with his sights on the imperial throne.

And this is where the writers both make the same mistake.

You see, that actually isn’t what each story is about. ASOIAF isn’t actually about the civil war, per-se, it’s about the rise and fall of dynasties. Similarly, LOGH is also about the rise and fall of a dynasty, not Reinhard’s ascension to the throne. But, both writers hang their plots on each storyline as a way to keep the story focused and under control.

As a result, when at the end of Book 3 of ASOIAF the Lannister’s seize full control of Westeros and win the civil war, and at the end of Book 3 of LOGH Reinhard becomes the new emperor, both book series suddenly come to a screeching halt. The authors no longer have a central act, or spine of action, to build the story around and keep it on track. They have characters, settings, plots, and events, but neither of them have a clear focus for it all.

In ASOIAF’s case, it was so bad that George R.R. Martin made his audience wait six years for Book 4 (a book filled with minor characters and plots), and then six more years for Book 5 to find out where the main storylines were going. He managed to bring it around, but it was nearly a car wreck of a story, and some could argue the story never does quite recover. The TV series dodged this bullet (barely) by being able to see it coming and working around it with a smoother transition from a story about taking power to a story about keeping it and eventually a new war.

With LOGH, there is a similar situation where Book 4 and Book 5 are also a bit of a mess as the story becomes about solidifying power, and it isn’t until the war between the Empire and Galactic Federation begins in earnest that the story gets back on track again. It doesn’t help that Reinhard himself almost becomes an emotional cripple for most of Book 4, pulling his story into a morass that it must struggle to recover from. Luckily for LOGH fans, Tanaka didn’t make them wait six years between each volume to be disappointed! The story also regains much of its footing and grandeur as it regains its focus.

And this, is where the lessons for those wanting to write epic fantasy stories comes in.

If you sell the audience on one kind of story, and the spine of action to go with it, you have to plan pretty carefully if you’re going to change things. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but if the audience signed up for a war story, and you suddenly make it about politics and political scheming, then they have every right to be unhappy. Similarly, you as an author might find that while you were perfectly able to write one type of story, the new type of story you find yourself writing might not be one you’re able to handle quite as well.

Epics are already challenging, since they can easily get out of the writer’s control (especially without a clear central spine to give them direction), but trying to do one without first working out how the major elements of the story are going to fit together is asking for trouble. You can easily end up with a bloated mess of a story that you have no idea how to end or where to go with, and all because you didn’t make sure you had a solid spine right from the start.

Note, if this sounds like I’m being too hard on George and Yoshiki, that’s a fair criticism. Writing these types of stories and doing them well is hard, and also they had an additional problem- some spines of action “Conquering a Land/Galaxy” are pretty big and vague and can be hard to work with. Martin solved this by anchoring everything on the viewpoints of a few key characters and their personal struggles, and Tanaka did something similar. The problem was the characters whose motivations gave the stories the spine of actions weren’t quite big enough to accomplish the goals of the books. But, since Martin planned for it to only be a trilogy (and maybe Tanaka also had no clear ending in mind), this can be perhaps forgiven.

Rob

 

 

The Task Story – A “New” Genre that’s

One of the more fascinating things about the internet is its ability to highlight so many different facets of human nature. The internet has brought out the best of humanity in things like charity drives and campaigns for positive change around the world, and it’s brought out the worst of humanity as well, in numerous sites filled with anger, hate, deception and depravity where you can find out worst sides on display.

It would be too far to say the internet has made us more human, but it has definitely shown us the true nature of what it is to be human in many ways.

One of those ways is how it’s changing fiction.

While in the past, genre fiction (action, crime, romance, erotica, horror, etc) was something that people considered a guilty pleasure and tended to read in the privacy of their own homes where nobody would judge them for not reading “real” books, now in the Kindle ebook age, genre fiction has exploded beyond anyone’s expectations. In fact, when it comes to ebooks, genre fiction tends to be closer to the rule than the exception, far outselling what it did in print, and leaving “literature” in the dusty bookshelves.

Nowhere is this more true than in the romance genre, which was already the world’s best selling genre of fiction, but thanks to ebooks women have been consuming romance in such large quantities that they have been destroying discount ebook and audiobook sites. Sites like Scribd which have tried to become Netflix for eBooks have found that romance readers have overwhelmed their budgets and killed many one flat fee schemes for digital media.

There’s something about romance fiction that women can’t seem to get enough of, just ask any bookseller who was around when Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey were at their peak, something which appeals to the most basic parts of the female brain.

Not that this is a surprise to anyone who has looked at neuroscience research, or psychology, or sociology, or…dare I say it…biology. Test after test, study after study come back with one simple truth, the truth we all know but often aren’t supposed to say in our hyper-egalitarian age…

Men and women are different.

Not better, or worse, just different.

And, one of the ways that your average man, and your average woman (notice, I’m not saying all men or all women, just the average one) are different is that while women are oriented towards people, men are oriented towards things. Or, to be more specific for what we’re talking about here- woman are relationship-oriented while men are goal-oriented. This is why women’s communication centres are larger than men’s, and men’s centers for motor and spacial skills are more developed than women’s. Men’s brains are literally optimized for dealing with tasks, while women’s brains are optimized for dealing with other people.

Thus, women are drawn to romance and dramas like bees to pollen, because these stories stimulate their natural desires and inclinations. Similarly, men avoid romance and dramas like the plague, but give them a good goal-oriented quest story or one built around plot and action, and they’re ready to line up just like the ladies.

In both cases, these stories stimulate the subconscious desires that come with being a member of each sex, and appeal to those same needs. Stories give us information we need to survive and navigate in our respective domains, and so men are drawn to stories about physical conflict and challenges, and women are drawn to stories about social conflict and challenges. Our brains are trying to learn more about the world from these stories, and we’re drawn to stories that seem to give us the things we need.

Thus, as a consequence of all this, women are drawn to romance because it appeals to their subconscious need to further understand human interaction and find the optimal partner and father for their children.

But, what of men?

As noted above, men are thing and goal oriented. They are designed to find, seek, hunt, build, fight and create- all things which are connected to the world around them. The most popular male genres like Action, Fantasy, and Westerns are, and always have been built around those broad actions- about a man who reaches out and tames the world around him.

Consequently, many have equated the Action genre (in its many forms dating back to Beowulf, to the pulp fiction of the 20th century, superhero comics, action movies, etc) as being the male version of the romance novel. However, with the rise of ebooks, we’re now seeing a new genre emerge, one which might more literally be called the male equivalent of the romance novel because it goes to the same parts of the male brain the romance novel does in the female brain-

The Task Story.

Simply put, the Task Story is a story which is there to stimulate the unconscious male desire to achieve goals and tasks. It’s targeting the same parts of the male psyche that are the reason why most men have “hobbies” or “projects” that they feel compelled to do or drawn to. They are no-nonsense stories built very simply around the structure of a character with a very clear task to perform, and watching the character attempt to the best of their ability to perform that task. (In the past I have called these Creative Procedurals, but I’m starting to think simply calling them Task Stories might be a better choice.)

A Task Story almost everyone reading this is already familiar with that came out recently a book and movie is The Martian. In that story, an astronaut is stranded on Mars, left behind after an accident, and must figure out how to use the tools and knowledge of science to survive until help can come in the distant future. The structure of the story is very very simple, a man and a task, and that forms the whole backbone of the story, with no need for drama or other interactions except as it relates to the task he’s trying to perform. (Of course, this is just an updated version of Robinson Crusoe, another Task Story of the same line.)

Want more examples?

The Lost Fleet by Jack Campbell- a man wakes up from suspended animation and through a series of circumstances ends up in command of a fleet deep in enemy space trying to get home. It’s eleven books or riveting sci-fi action, 90% of which are set on three rooms in the same battlecruiser, and most of that with him in the command seat of the ship. What drama there is basically just padding for the sake of drama (and at times nails-on-a-chalkboard bad), but the heart of the book is just a man trying to complete the “simple” but extremely hard task of getting the ships home.

A final Sci-fi example which has blown up recently is the incredible We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis E. Taylor, which is about a man named Bob Johansen from present day whose memories are used as the template for a future space probe going out into the stars. The probe can build copies of itself with the materials it finds in other star systems, which results in legion of “Bobs” traveling, exploring and fighting to save humanity from extinction. However, through it all, it’s just about the Bobs trying to accomplish the very hard tasks of saving humanity, one step at a time.

Not that Task Stories have to be science fiction, the entire modern-set Jack Reacher series by Lee Child is nothing but Reacher going from one task to the next, each of them with him applying his massive skill set to dealing with the situation involved. This too has spawned countless clones, because there’s something about this simple, solid narrative structure of “a man with a problem to solve” that appeals to the male brain and makes for compelling fiction when done right.

Another place to find this on display which the internet has really highlighted is Webfiction, where you need look no farther than the newest exploding subgenre litRPGs to find a whole genre almost entirely written around Task Stories. In the vast majority of these stories, a character with a greater goal is dumped into a virtual video game world and then proceeds to work their way up the system to achieve that goal. The progenitor of these is Legendary Moonlight Sculptor from South Korea, but most people are more familiar with names like Ready Player One and Sword Art Online.

Not that it’s just litRPGs, Asian webfiction for men is currently dominated by a variety of Task Stories. From the Chinese Xianxia “Cultivator” stories where a young man goes from being a nobody to (literally) a god, to the Japanese Isekai stories where a young man (or occasionally woman, but they’re still mostly written and read by men) gets dumped in a fantasy world and must complete a quest of some kind.

Sites hosting English fan translations of these stories, like Wuxiaworld and Gravity Tales are getting tens of millions of hits by readers…a day. And, these English language numbers are tiny compared to the readerships they have in their native lands.

And, almost all of these stories are super-simple in structure- the character has a task and they go through the steps needed to complete that task, meeting challenges along the way. Drama and romance are secondary things at best, because that isn’t the point, the point is a character trying to accomplish a goal and watching they work their way through that procedure. Other characters are only there to help the main character in their goal, either by providing resources or motivating them in some way (which is usually the female love interest’s sole purpose in most of these stories, if there’s one at all).

Compare this with the traditional Hollywood three-act-structure we see most narratives based on, and you’ll see the difference. In those stories, the character goes on a journey of personal change, where they try to accomplish some goal, discover flaws within themselves preventing them from achieving that goal, and then accomplishes the goal having overcome those personal flaws. The focus in those stories, which are designed to achieve a balance between male and female interests, are mostly on the character’s personal inner journey and change, linking it with external events.

However, with the Task Story, there doesn’t need to be an inner conflict or journey of any kind. The point of the story isn’t how the character is changing, but how the character changes the world around them. The character is just there to serve as a viewpoint as they go through the task, and we the audience experience the task progression through their eyes.

So, how does the story maintain interest without the interpersonal drama?

Well, going back to my article on The S.P.I.N.E. of Every Good Story, the story simply focuses on other things from the options of Skills, Perception, Information, Novelty and Emotion. Generally, Task Stories tend to focus on Skills, Information and Novelty. Jack Reacher is a perfect example of this, reading a Jack Reacher novel is an exercise in learning about guns, unarmed combat, infiltration techniques, geography, geology, psychology, and a whole pile of other information. The author is constantly filling each chapter with interesting (and always relevant) bits of information about the world around Reacher, and you can learn a lot from any of his adventures while being surprised.

This desire to learn is stronger than most people realize, and can sustain interest in a story as it goes. Just look at the 7.6 million subscribers to the Primitive Technology YouTube channel, a channel which is just about a single man trying to recreate various pieces of technology from the ground up. It’s a literal example of a non-fiction Task Story in action, and it’s wildly popular.

That doesn’t mean there can’t be personal transformation or things like deep introspection in a Task Story, but it isn’t the point, so those things are often left off the table. In many cases, deep questions about philosophy would get in the way, so they’re just ignored in favor of presenting big challenges for the main character to overcome. These are truly external stories, and internal drama would mostly go against the point.

Whether these types of stories will continue to flourish is anyone’s guess, but considering that they’re also some of the oldest kinds of stories (Jason and the Argonauts anyone?), they’re definitely not going away, and their appeal only seems to be rising with the explosion of litRPG stories and Light Novels. They’re also a type of story that favors younger authors, who may not have a strong grasp of drama, but know how to write a simple story about a man (or woman) on a mission. If they can do it well, they can find an audience, and work their way to the top.

Hey, that sounds like a fun Task!

Have fun!

Rob

Stories Made Simple Ep.3 – The Spine of Action (Part 1)

In this episode, Rob begins delving into the Spine of Action, and how understanding it can make your stories better.

Stories Made Simple Ep.2- The 5WH Method

In this episode, Rob discusses the importance of details in stories, what details writers need to include, and how many.

Stories Made Simple- Episode 1: What are Stories?

I’ve been wanting to do a few YouTube videos about storytelling for a while, and finally finished the first one. Let me know what you think!

Rob